A Way With Words: Malaprop
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Back in the 1970s, a comedian named Norm Crosby was famous for using malaprops in his show. A malaprop is a word or phrase used incorrectly in place of a similar sounding word or phrase.
It was his schtick to mispronounce keywords in familiar clichés and idioms, often giving the new phrase hilarious meaning. He would talk about sport figures being “insulations to the younger players,” or he would tell a joke about Sigmund Freud, and how Freud figured out a problem on the “sperm of the moment.”
He did all this with great humorous effect, but it’s not so funny when we use a cliché or the incorrect word in our writing.
I recently began a list of all the malapropisms I found in stories and news articles I read online:
the devil to our own demise = devil in disguise
hard ache = heartache
combed in = combined
baited breath = bated breath
peaked interest = piqued interest
intensive purposes = intents and purposes
escape goat = scapegoat
lose patients = lose patience
We’ve all done it. It’s like singing along to our favorite songs and mangling the lyrics. I still don’t know the right words to “Blinded by the Light.” I had a friend who thought the words to the Greg Kihn Band’s song “Jeopardy,” were “I love the Japanese,” instead of “our love’s in jeopardy.”
It’s easy to mix up even common sayings, or words that sound similar. I recently used the word “hurdle,” when I meant “hurtle.” Very close in pronunciation and spelling, but so very different in definition. It made the phrase, “hurdling through space,” absurd.
Automatic spellcheckers won’t catch these errors if all your words are spelled correctly. You have to manually double check each word when you’re unsure of the meaning or spelling.
Better yet, avoid clichés like the plaque. (See what I did there?) Try not to rely on overused phrases when you can put your imagination to the work, and write something original.
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